By Nick Butler

Nick ButlerWalking around the National Sports Centre in the heart of the Kosovan capital city Pristina last week, I spent a few moments engrossed in the plight of two young wrestlers training.

In a facility where enthusiasm and camaraderie accounted for shortages in equipment and resources, one wrestler was clearly smaller and technically inferior to the other.

Time and time again he charged forward and was duly flipped, thrown or driven into the school gymnasium-style mat. But he refused to be disheartened and surged forward again only to suffer the same result.

And eventually, after at least 15 minutes of failure, with a flick of the shoulders and a twist of the legs, he caught his opponent by surprise and pinned him down for a solitary point.

Similarly dogged determination has been displayed throughout the last two decades as Kosovo has battled valiantly for the right to participate in the Olympic Games.

This struggle has endured plenty of setbacks. But progress has also been made and small victories have been enjoyed. And confidence is high the time has now come.

"We have many very good athletes who I believe are good enough to take part at an Olympic Games, and even win a gold medal", Besim Hasani, Kosovo Olympic Committee President since 1996, tells insidethegames.

"What we want is the opportunity to compete equally with all other athletes of the world.

"Being recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a big motivation and opportunity for all the athletes and coaches who are working very hard."

Wrestling is one of many sports in which Kosovo are grappling for international equality ©ITGWrestling is one of many sports in which Kosovo are grappling for international equality ©ITG

For a true understanding of Kosovo's unique situation, an overview of historical and contemporary international relations, as well as a hefty dose of sports politics, is required.

The region, landlocked in the south of the Balkans, was a central part of the old Serbia but, following a 1389 defeat at the Battle of Kosovo, became part of the Ottoman Empire, and remained there for the next five centuries. In that time, the ethnic complexity of the region became dominated by Albanians rather than Serbians, and in the 2011 census ethnic Albanian Muslims constituted almost 93 per cent of the population.

But following the Second World War, Kosovo was not included in newly independent Albania and was instead absorbed into Yugoslavia, along with a hotchpotch of other ethnic groups including Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Hungarians. Kosovo remained the poorest and least developed region and, despite some gestures under Josip Tito's rule from the 1970s, had little freedom or power. And in the 1990s when Yugoslavia began to fragment in bloody fashion, Kosovo was unable to gain independence.

Yet by this point a coherent national identity was emerging, and this was expressed by new groups including the Kosovo Liberation Army, which actively resisted Serbian aggression. As the campaign grew, Serbia responded by launching a vicious crackdown on the Albanian population, resulting in thousands of deaths. With hundreds of thousands fleeing the province and reports of mass ethnic cleansing, NATO called it a humanitarian catastrophe and in March 1999 began a 78-day bombing campaign on targets in Kosovo and Serbia. This eventually drove the Serbians out by the summer of 1999.

After that, Kosovo was governed by United Nations (UN) and NATO forces as some vestiges of autonomy and self-Government gradually emerged under Prime Minister Ibrahim Rugova. And finally, on February 17 2008, the Kosovan Assembly declared independence and was swiftly recognised by the majority of the western world, including by United States, Britain, France, Germany and Turkey.

But, and this is where it gets complicated, due to their close relations with Serbia, Russia, together with more implicit Chinese support, have repeatedly used their veto as one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council to block any prospect of UN membership. Today, 107 of the 193 UN members have recognised Kosovo, so more than 60 per cent of the total membership, with Lesotho the most recent to do so in February this year. Many more are currently in the process of negotiating recognition.

The legacy of the war still profoundly affects Kosovo 15 years later ©AFP/Getty ImagesThe legacy of the war still profoundly affects Kosovo 15 years later
©AFP/Getty Images

So how does this relate to sport and the Olympics?

As outlined in the IOC Charter, one requirement for membership is having at least five national sporting federations recognised by the respective international body. While other nations aspiring to achieve IOC membership have failed to fulfil this, such as South Sudan, Kosovo is recognised by 12 federations, beginning with the International Table Tennis Federation in 2003 and continuing with FIFA this year.

The Charter also states that a new member must be an "independent state recognised by the international community". Once again, Kosovo claims to fulfil this criteria, and justifiably so considering the number of countries which recognise it, as well as a ruling in 2010 by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) deeming the declaration of independence legal. The Republic is also a member of other international organisations including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

But "recognised by the international community" has been interpreted as meaning a member of the United Nations and, until this interpretation or the statute itself is changed, Kosovo has little chance of entering the Olympic fold.

The most frustrating thing, Hasani argues, is that all the politics detracts from what really matters, namely enhancing opportunities for Kosovan athletes.

When watching Kosovo's second official football match last week, in which Albert Bunjaku scored the country's first international goal in a 6-1 defeat to a Turkish side ranked 39th in the world, it was obvious the team was unused to playing together and to facing opposition of the highest calibre. They were lacking pace and guile and were punished for occasional lapses of concentration, all shortcomings likely to be reduced with experience.

This trait is common across other sports as well, evident to me when inspecting the facilities at the National Sports Centre where karate, table tennis and boxing training sessions were taking place, as well as the wrestling one.

I was amazed when, in a traffic jam on the way back from the football match, Hasani began reeling off the names of Kosovans who are best known as representatives of another country.

As well as wider figures ranging from Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje but grew up in Kosovo before moving to India aged 19, and Pristina-born British singer Rita Ora, this includes footballers Xherdan Shaqiri and Adnan Januzaj. Bayern Munich star Shaqiri now represents Switzerland while Manchester United's Januzaj opted to play for Belgium, his country of birth after his parents emigrated there from Kosovo.

But it is hoped the next generation of football talents will have greater opportunity to compete for Kosovo instead.

Yet Kosovo does have vast potential and, in judoka Majlinda Kelmendi, they have their very own global champion.

World champion Majlinda Kelmendi is the shining beacon of Kosovon sport ©AFP/Getty ImagesWorld champion Majlinda Kelmendi is the shining beacon of Kosovon sport
©AFP/Getty Images

After being given special permission to represent Albania at London 2012, the only Kosovan athlete to compete at the Games, the following year Kelmendi competed at the 2013 World Championships in Rio in Kosovan colours, where she not only won the gold medal but was named best fighter across all female weight categories.

The approach of judo, and International Judo Federation (IJF) President Marius Vizer, is something Hasami would like to see replicated elsewhere.

"Kosovo used to be a poor country during ex-Yugoslavia, before we faced the war," he told insidethegames. "We have the youngest population in Europe. I would like our young athletes to have the opportunity to compete internationally, because we didn't have this opportunity for 24 years."

"I think all people involved in judo are seeing Majlinda Kelmendi as a potential gold medallist at Rio 2016.

"Marius Vizer came to Kosovo and visited clubs and saw we have talented judoka. He looked at the statutes and found they weren't in our favour. So he went back and asked the IJF Executive Board how we can have more athletes, since the statutes are not in favour, and the Board decided to allow them to compete under the IJF flag.

"He gave us an opportunity to compete and judoka from Kosovo didn't let down him down, because we have since won five medals from European and World Championships.

"In other sports athletes also have values to share with the world. The IJF is richer due to Majlinda and I can guarantee the Olympic Movement would be richer with Kosovan athletes."

The corollary of this, however, is that if Kosovo remain unsuccessful in their Olympic quest at Rio 2016, the motivation levels of aspiring athletes is likely to drop.

"Everybody in Kosovo knows we fulfil the criteria to become an IOC member," Hasani adds. "We think that we will become a member at [the] Session in December and everybody is looking forward to that.

"We lost many talented athletes because they became champions in Kosovo but didn't have the opportunity to compete internationally," adds Hasani. "If we don't get membership by 2016, many will give up because their motivation will be so low."

So where do other sports sit in relation to Kosovo?

In total, Kosovo has 32 international sporting federations, of which 20 are recognised by their respective international body, including those 12 Olympic sports. While some, like table tennis, archery, judo and sailing have full membership, the Football Federation of Kosovo has it on a limited basis. Kosovo are permitted to play FIFA-sanctioned friendly matches against willing opposition but are still barred from competitive matches.

Others are restricted completely, with the governing bodies for athletics, aquatics and shooting all requiring membership of the IOC as criteria for entry, while others still, like the International Cycling Union under new head Brian Cookson, are currently considering their stance.

An annual Olympic Day is held in Kosovo to encourage sporting participation ©KOCAn annual Olympic Day is held in Kosovo to encourage sporting participation

The discrepancy between different sports was brought home to me when I embarked on an ad-hoc tour of the National Sporting Federation offices; all located in the Kosovo House of Sport alongside the NOC headquarters.

First I visited the boxing office. A poster on the desk advertised a nine-nation tournament taking place in Pristina later this month. This will provide a stern examination, with Croatia and Bulgaria expected to bring teams containing medal winners from the World Junior Championship, held in Sofia last month. Kosovo did participate in the Bulgarian capital, sending a squad of four men and one woman, although the performance was deemed "unsatisfactory" because they won no medals.

But they did get much needed experience.

This followed a visit to Pristina by International Boxing Association President CK Wu in 2012. "He sat in the very chair you are sitting in now", I was told by Kosovo Boxing Federation secretary general Mehmet Bogujevci, a smile appearing at the mere memory of the visit.

"He was on television, and met the President and Prime Minister," he added. "He also promised to send an Olympic-standard boxing ring as well as a scoring system and gloves. And he did because he always delivers on what he promises."

A walk up the staircase later and I was in the athletics office receiving a far bleaker update.

There are undoubtedly talented Kosovan athletes such as teenage sprinter Vijona Kryeziu. At the age of 16, Kryeziu ran 56.82 seconds for 400 metres, well inside the qualifying standard of 57.60 for the 2013 World Youth Championships in Donetsk, only to be unable to compete due to the lack of recognition from the International Association of Athletics Federations.

It will be hard for athletes like her to remain in the sport if opportunities to compete, or train, at the highest level remain so limited. They do travel to occasional overseas events, in Albania or Turkey, but are not even allowed to compete in the regional Balkan Championships. Another problem relates to facilities with the only athletics track, at the stadium in Mitrovika where football is now held, in a state of disrepair.

And for all the warmth and picturesque beauty of the Olympic Stadium in Mitrovika - called so because it was built in 1974 with the aim of hosting Olympic sports rather than for actually hosing the Games - it has a capacity of just 18,000 and is therefore not really capable of fulfilling the surging national demand for the game.

There are plans to build a 30,000-capacity National Stadium in the capital city, but this remains dependent on funding, although the advent of international matches has already led to a more concerted effort.

The current football stadium has a picturesque beauty but does not fulfil standards befitting a true national stadium ©ITGThe current football stadium has a picturesque beauty but does not fulfil standards befitting a true national stadium ©ITG

One positive trait common across the sporting programme is the fact they are organising regular events. As well as the boxing and the international football programme, which began against Haiti in March and continues against Senegal today, a Pristina Half Marathon and a Tour of Kosovo cycling stage race are also held on an annual basis.

It is important to note that funding remains a problem. On April 1 the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports allocated an annual budget of €50,000 (£41,000/$68,000) to the Kosovo Olympic Committee. This represents a start but it is clear how much further there is to go, with most leading sports officials, including NOC chief Besim Hasani, unpaid volunteers.

For Kosovo remains impoverished by European standards. Due to a lack of infrastructure it is unable to capitalise on its mineral wealth, and its economy remains agriculturally dependent.

Spending three days in the country I saw occasional glimpses of this. The aforementioned National Sports Centre had one large sports hall, but the second one it used to have has long since fallen into disrepair, and is now used as a car-park. Driving the 40 kilometres from Pristina to Mitrovika, meanwhile, I was jolted, quite literally, as our car started bumping and swerving, because the main road between the two towns suddenly became an unpaved track for well over a kilometre.

Until they receive IOC status Kosovo is also deprived of Olympic Solidarity Funding, despite the support of Olympic Solidarity director Pere Miró. Access to this would make a huge difference.

So what is the stance of the IOC Executive Board?

Hasani has had various meetings with many of its members, including IOC President Thomas Bach, and believes Bach and all other Executive Board members are "closely following" sporting developments, as well as political ones.

Some are certainly restricted by domestic pressure, with five of the 15 Board members coming from countries who do not recognise Kosovo: in vice-president's Zaiqing Yu of China and Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, along with Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr of Spain, Sergey Bubka of Ukraine, and Willi Kaltschmitt Luján of Guatemala, although Morocco and Guatemala are each considered close to granting recognition.

The recent view of a third IOC vice-president, Britain's Sir Craig Reedie, that an independent Scotland would struggle to compete at Rio 2016 because it "takes time" to receive UN recognition, can also be interpreted as another blow. While Agenda 2020 is creating a desire for change, it also makes the timetable very busy, and simply getting Kosovo onto the agenda is one hurdle to overcome.

But there is also cause for optimism. There are many staunch allies of Kosovo and Hasami on the Executive Board. CK Wu is one, of course, while another is Turkey's World Archery President Ugur Erdener. Many figures from international federations have also voted in favour despite their country not having granted recognition as sporting, as well as international, politics wields sway.

Kosovo's Olympic participation rests largely in the hands of the IOC Executive Board ©Getty ImagesKosovo's Olympic participation rests largely in the hands of the IOC Executive Board ©Getty Images

If the Board grants its approval, and it is thought unanimous agreement is not required, the decision will go to the Session at large, where it is hoped the Olympian themes of opportunity and sport will prevail in the minds of the members. This could still happen at the Extraordinary Session in Monte Carlo from December 6 to 7.

And in a year when the IOC has repeatedly stressed how politics should not impact on the Olympic Games, ahead of and during Sochi 2014, anything other than accepting Kosovo appears to contravene this foremost principle.

Along with IJF and SportAccord President Vizer, another figure to have expressed support, who is not on the Executive Board but a significant power-broker nonetheless, is Kuwait's Association of National Olympic Committees President Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah. Hasani was invited to the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Lausanne last June and insists Sheikh Ahmad "is very keen to give an opportunity to Kosovo athletes to compete equally with others".

The inclusion of Sheikh Ahmad on the IOC Agenda 2020 Working Group on IOC membership announced this week, and headed by Grand Duke Henri of Luxemburg, adds to this significance.

So, given all of this, the question of Kosovan membership remains up in the air. Whatever the IOC claim, it is a perfect example of politics at play in the Olympic Movement, but during my three-day visit to this relatively unknown corner of Europe, what struck me was the genuine enthusiasm and joyful abandon for sport in its purist and simplest form.

"It is a crucial time for the IOC Executive Board to help our athletes," concludes Hasani, who has dedicated much of his life to this one goal.

"Allow them to work hard and promise them they will be equal with others.

"They deserve it."

But the great thing is that despite all of these hardships these people will not be swayed. As with the wrestler who never gave up, Hasani and Kosovo will keep fighting and eventually, maybe this year or maybe later, they will achieve their dream.

And that will be a seminal achievement in the history of the Republic.

Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here